The Life-Shaping Power of Story: God’s and Ours

(These are notes taken during the session, not a manuscript.)

Thesis of this message:

The single best way of conceiving of faith and the life of faith is by seeing it as a story in which you are a character.

Twelve reasons story is the best way to think of the life of faith:

1. Stories are God's idea.

Stories are how God has chosen to present himself in the Bible. The theme of his story is shalom: all things in their created place, doing what they were created to do, in loving relationship with their Creator. And it is a story into which God invites you and me as characters.

If faith were just an idea the intellect alone might be adequate for dealing with it. But since it is a life we ought to live, we need story in order to learn it.

Why might God have chosen story?

It has the power to move us. Understanding stories involves the intellect, but it involves more than that: intuitions, imagination, physical sense, and personal experience.

Story is also a great way to preserve knowledge over many generations. Consider what Joshua commanded the people to do when they came to cross the river Jordan.

Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. 5 And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4:4-7)

Joshua's pile of rocks is a story prompt, by which a new generation could understand the power of God. You could say propositionally that the Lord is powerful, but by itself it doesn't have any impact. How is the Lord powerful? Let me tell you a story...

Propositions are important, but they depend on the stories out of which they arise for their power, meaning, and application. Imagine having all the propositions of faith but none of the stories. They would be true, but we wouldn't know what to do with them.

Propositions are shorthand for story. They stand in for stories that we don't have the time to tell. And the Bible doesn't ask us to chose between proposition and story. They are both there, and they need each other.

Propositions serve as a check on story, clarifying how they ought to be interpreted, and stories serve as a check on propositions, keeping them from being shallow, inert, or legalistic. So we need them both. But take warning: never let your propositions get far from the stories out of which they came.

2. Stories fit how we have been made and how we live.

Humans are biologically made to be story tellers and listeners. The only way for the brain to survive taking in and processing new data is through story. And we are social creatures, made to be in relationship with God and others. And one of the most powerful ways to connect with each other is through story. "How was your day?" is a story prompt.

3. Like faith, stories engage us as whole persons, not as parts.

No one believes anything important with the intellect alone. Believing is a whole body, whole life experience. If it doesn't involve everything, it's not belief but simply an agreement with an idea. Believing enlists all the aspects of the mind. It involves the will, curiosity, personality, character, our bodies, imagination. You don't believe anything deeply that isn't a product of all that you are.

Reason is a tool that will serve any master, including the most odious. By itself it does not get us where we need to go. We need to use it as well as we can, but we are foolish to think that any single human faculty is sufficient to guide our entire lives. A lot of wrong thoughts about life come from not treating people wholly. Anything that respects only reason, or only will-power or discipline will break down.

Consider the example of Nathan's confrontation of David, after he had slept with Bathsheba and murdered her husband (2 Samuel 12). He tells a story to David, and he tells it masterfully, using timing and irony and pathos. David becomes enraged by the actions of the rich man in Nathan's story and declares that he deserves to die.

Notice that David's intellect, emotion, sense of justice, and body are involved. He responds as a whole person, which is exactly the response Nathan must have desired. And then the prophet says most powerfully, "You are that man!," bringing the full force of the message home to David and leading him to repentance.

4. Stories are about choices and their consequences.

And so is the life of faith. The essence of story is people making choices. We feel like we're in that position ourselves oftentimes, and we're looking for help. So they draw us in. They make us ask, "What would I do if I was in that situation?"

5. Stories have the power to change us.

And this is precisely what faith is about--changed lives. An important story cries out "You must be different because of what you have heard." David could not hear Nathan's story and its application and pretend like he could go about his own business again. It is the same with the Gospels--once you've heard them you are not allowed to remain the same.

6. Stories are directive.

They tell us we must change and they tell us how we must change. They teach us our lines in the script. People who don't seem to know how to behave in life have often not been told stories about how they are to live.

7. Stories are strong and complex enough to contain pain, suffering, failure and mystery.

If your faith story has no room for these things, it is not the biblical story.

8. Stories call us to action.

So does faith. Nothing kills a story faster than a passive protagonist. They must act, otherwise the story comes to and end. So too in the life of faith. It must lead to action. We are more likely to live out our faith if we conceive of ourselves as characters in a story than if we think it involves just maintaining some propositions.

9. Each of us needs a master story.

For Jews in the Old Testament it is the story of the Exodus. The master story for Christians is the Easter story, the resurrection of Christ, which also tells us who we are. If we forget that story, we start to believe that we are like everyone else.

Stories are not entertainment, decoration, or illustration. They are the raw material of thought, and they tell us how to live. The major difficulties of the world are a result of collision between master stories, whether in politics, religion, history, etc.

Be warned, however. Not all stories are created equal. Master stories can be healthy or unhealthy. They can leave you trapped in brokenness and despair. Satan is also a storyteller. He takes the story of what happened in the Garden of Eden and gives it a new interpretation. The good news, however, is that no one has to remain in a broken story.

10. Stories create communities.

That's who we are as Christians centered around the stories of the Bible. And our unity goes deeper than blood.

11. Stories makes connections between seemingly unconnected things.

12. Stories are the foundation for meaning and significance.

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